HC Deb 12 March 1964 vol 691 cc840-52

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. MacArthur.]

12.10 a.m.

Mr. Edward Gardner (Billericay)

The purpose of my addressing the House at this rather late hour is quite simple. On behalf of more than 4,800 people who live on or near a road known as Rayleigh Road at Hutton in my constituency of Billericay, I wish to try to persuade my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport to provide for the people using the road a pedestrian crossing. I am fully aware that this issue may seem of small moment when compared with some of the great subjects which are debated in this Chamber, but to the 5,000 or so people who live in this area it is an issue of importance and great personal concern.

The Rayleigh Road is part of the A.129 which runs through Hutton village and past the Hutton village hall. It is a road which hundreds of people, men, women and children, cross and re-cross daily and along which thousands of vehicles pass. It has become a notorious road in Essex. The people who live on or near it fear this road. They fear it for themselves, for children who have to use it and for old people who have to cross it. Anyone living on or near the road must inevitably, at some time, have to cross it, and he or she crosses it without any protection against the constant flow of traffic.

There is a speed limit of 30 m.p.h. on the road. If this speed limit were respected and observed, the demand for a pedestrian crossing might have less force but the unhappy fact is that, if one wanted an appalling illustration of the contempt which the majority of motorists show for the 30 m.p.h. speed limit, tie Rayleigh Road at Hutton would provide that illustration. The police do their best with routine patrols and radar checks, but, of course, these cannot be continuous. Once they are known to be in operation, they transform the behaviour of the average motorist, but, as soon as the checks are removed, we have the same old—so it seems to those who have to cross or use the road—reckless behaviour. For the rest of the time, when there is no radar check and there are no police patrols on the road, which means most of the time, motorists, motor cyclists and lorry drivers know no discipline or restraint of any kind. Vehicles of all kinds streak past at speeds of up to and sometimes more than 50 m.p.h.

For seven years now, the residents in this part of Hutton have been trying to get a pedestrian crossing. The nearest crossing which they can use is at the Shenfield railway station to the west, some considerable distance away, and the traffic lights at Billericay are miles to the east. In May, 1952, the Rayleigh Road Committee was formed. This committee got up a petition, which was signed by nearly 3,000 people, asking for what I am now asking my hon. Friend to agree to tonight, that is, a pedestrian crossing.

On 28th June, 1963, the committee took a traffic census which showed that at the peak time for traffic, between 8 and 9 o'clock in the morning, about 810 vehicles were going along this road and at the same, time it was being used by about 250 pedestrians. When the volume of traffic was at its lowest, that is, between 10 and 11 o'clock in the morning, there were 342 vehicles on the road and the number of pedestrians was 158.

In August, 1963, that is, the following month, and, it seems, at a time when many people in the area were on holiday, the local council, Brentwood Urban District Council, took a survey and census, and it found that the peak of traffic was reached between 7 and 8 o'clock in the morning, that 595 vehicles and 69 pedestrians were using the road, and that the lowest volume was reached at between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. with 214 vehicles and 107 pedestrians.

During tie last five years—I suggest that this is an important fact—the population in this area has increased threefold, to nearly 5,000 people. From 1960 until October, 1963—last year—there were 126 accidents on this stretch of road 81 casualties resulted from those accidents, and one of them was a fatal accident, and 18 children under the age of 15 were among those 81 casualties.

I am fully aware that those figures may not he dramatic when compared with other figures which are available on a national scale, but they are dramatic enough for the people who live in Rayleigh Road, and they want to make this road safe by the provision of a pedestrian grossing before needless loss of life and limb prove to the Ministry that such a crossing is really essential. I do not want to overstate the case, but surely one can ask this of the Ministry: how many people must be injured on this road, how many people must die on this road, before the Ministry is satisfied of the need for a pedestrian crossing?

Of course there is always the argument, and in almost all cases it is rehearsed again and again by the Ministry—and one sympathises with the Ministry—that a pedestrian crossing would unnecessarily slow down the traffic in a particular area without giving any compensatory safety. Well, it cannot be used, I would submit, in this particular area, because the traffic there ought to be slowed down. It is one of the things which frighten the people who live in this area, and a pedestrian crossing would at least have the effect—one would hope it would have the effect—of slowing down traffic in that area.

The other argument which one always hears in cases of this kind is that a pedestrian crossing would impede the progress of traffic. I would answer that in this area by saying at once that nothing on this road can impede or in fact does impede traffic so obviously and successfully as the uncontrolled, undisciplined and haphazard crossing of this road by old people and young people, and indeed by people of all ages, who have to weave their way through this continuous volume of high speed traffic in an area where, of course, if the limits were observed, the traffic would be travelling at a reasonable speed.

I would submit that a pedestrian crossing in this area would make sense, that it does make sense that it would provide the security which the people who live in the area—and surely they are as good judges if not the best judges of all—desire so much. They want to feel safe. They want to know that their children can go out and cross the road without the danger of an accident, serious or fatal. There is already a school crossing there, in the sense that there is a school patrol, and the children are escorted across the road. I would submit that that, too, shows the need for some sort of control on this road. It is a need which is obvious and of which the residents are firmly convinced from their own daily experience.

I ask the Minister to ensure that the matter is looked into again. If need be, the residents, and, I think I am right in saying, representatives of the local authority, and certainly myself as Member of Parliament for the area, would be very happy to meet on the site a Ministry official so that if what I have said does not convince my hon. Friend of the need for a pedestrian crossing, an hour with a Ministry official—no longer than an hour would be needed—might achieve what I have been attempting to persuade my hon. Friends to agree to.

12.20 a.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. T. G. D. Galbraith)

I suppose that the fact that we are here tonight is a classic example of how Parliamentary democracy works and how Ministers are constantly put through the hoop. First of all, there are letters, then Parliamentary Questions, and finally the ordeal of the Adjournment debate, which in this case has been hanging over my head for some time as a spur to goad me into what my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Gardner) considers the correct action.

No one is sorrier than I am to have been unable to succumb to this proposal, for if I had been we should not have been here at this comparatively late hour. But I am afraid that, much as I would like to acquiesce, I must stick to my guns, and I hope that when my hon. and learned Friend hears what I have to say he will not think that this consistency of mine is altogether unreasonable.

As my hon. and learned Friend said, there has been a good deal of strong local feeling on this matter. If we had had any doubts about this, my hon. and learned Friend's own persistence would soon have removed them, for not only has he asked Questions, but I have had no fewer than six letters from him, and all of them have been very good ones. Certainly, no one could have put forward his constituents' views with greater persuasiveness and perseverance than my hon. and learned Friend. I am sure that his constituents recognise how fortunate they are in possessing such an active and sympathetic Member.

The trouble is, of course, as my hon. and learned Friend told the House, that this area is expanding rapidly. It is one of the many examples of growth and development which Conservative government has helped to create. But because the rate of growth is so rapid, people accustomed to the former comparative tranquility find it difficult to get used to the new situation.

What is this new situation? As I have said, we have heard a great deal about the difficulties experienced by pedestrians here. There has been a petition, and we have had representations from the Brentwood Urban District Council, which is the appropriate local authority for submitting pedestrian crossings schemes, and because of all this agitation which has taken place over the years, we have investigated the matter thoroughly, not once or even twice, but three times.

On each occasion we have found that the volume of traffic was not sufficient to cause serious difficulty to pedestrians who wanted to cross. Nor were the number of people likely to cross at any one point sufficient to keep a crossing in regular use at most times of the day. The absence of this factor makes it extremely difficult to justify what my hon. and learned Friend is asking for. He has just told the House that he considers the traffic heavy. But I am afraid that a census of vehicles and pedestrians carried out by the local council's engineer and surveyor over a period of 12 hours between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. on two days last August does not confirm this. The highest number of vehicles and pedestrians recorded in any one hour was 595 and pedestrians 138.

The figures varied considerably from hour to hour, and the lowest number was 214 vehicles and 8 pedestrians. Taking the hour with the heaviest flow, vehicles were passing at the rate of only 1 every 6 seconds. As my hon. and learned Friend appreciates, vehicles do not pass at regular intervals, so that with this rate of flow there are in fact several sizeable gaps every minute, giving ample opportunity to pedestrians to cross the road without difficulty. In an area like this, where expansion is rapid, traffic of this volume may well appear heavy compared with what people have been used to in the past, but this heaviness is really only a relative heaviness. In absolute terms it is not heavy at all.

In one of my letters to my hon. and learned Friend I mentioned some figures of other places where there are not pedestrian crossings, and which I think make a very interesting comparison with the situation on Rayleigh Road. I mentioned in that letter the High Street at Cowley with an average of 1,200 vehicles per hour and 95 pedestrians. I also mentioned the High Road at Chadwell Heath, which has an average of 1,500 vehicles and 122 pedestrians per hour, whereas Rayleigh has an average of only 325 vehicles and 65 pedestrians. I know that figures cannot be considered in isolation from other factors, but those figures show pretty clearly that neither the volume of traffic nor of pedestrians makes Rayleigh Road even a marginal candidate for a pedestrian crossing.

My hon. and learned Friend referred to other figures which have been produced by the local committee which differ from the official figures, and I must admit that I cannot explain the discrepancy between them. It may be that the local committee's figures covered a longer stretch of road than the council took, but it is no good taking a long stretch of road, because our experience is that pedestrians like to cross opposite the object of their walk and they will not go very far in either direction to secure a crossing. Therefore, a count of pedestrians anywhere else, unless it is close to the proposed crossing, nay well produce a figure which is irrelevant to the argument. However, this is supposition. I do not know the length of road over which the local committee took its count.

Mr. Gardner

I am told that the count taken by the residents' association was taken in more or less precisely the same spot and under similar circumstances, but it was taken in a different month. It was not taken in a holiday month.

Mr. Galbraith

I was not worried only about whether it was taken at the same spot. I assumed that it would be taken at approximately the same spot. I was worried about what length of road on each side of the spot they allowed people to cross and count them. All I can say is that the council's count was taken without notice, which might have some relevance, and therefore I think that it accurately reflects what may be regarded as the traffic flow of pedestrians and vehicle; on the road. The council is just as anxious as the local committee is to have a crossing, and it would not be likely to take a count at a time which it felt would not produce a favourable and fair answer. After all, the council produced the figures in support of the application which my hon. and learned Friend is championing tonight.

My hon. and learned Friend also referred to the difficulties of, and dangers to, school children. With respect to my hon. and learned Friend, I do not think that he had a very good point there, and I shall try to explain my doubts about it. On account of their age, and particularly when they are together, school children tend to lack judgment, and that is why we in the Ministry do not consider that a pedestrian crossing by itself gives young children proper protection. They are apt to run thoughtlessly on to a crossing from a false sense of security and so give drivers very little chance to stop in time. We believe that children are better protected by being escorted across the road by an adult.

There are, as my hon. and learned Friend knows—and he referred to them tonight—two school crossing patrols in Rayleigh Road, one near Claughton Way and the other near Hanging Hill Lane, which assist the children to cross the road in the morning, in the afternoon and at lunchtime, too. As to children who wish to catch the bus and who, therefore, go earlier than the patrols are in operation, I understand that there are not a great many of these children and also that they are of a much more advanced age.

My hon. and learned Friend also referred to the elderly. In the same way, crossings may present a danger to elderly people because crossing the road requires considerable judgment of distance and the speed of approaching vehicles. A crossing may, indeed, tempt the elderly, whose judgment may be impaired and who may be less able to correct an error of judgment quickly and, therefore, they take less care than is needed. The important thing for elderly folk, we believe, is to take extra care or at least to seek the help of a younger, more able-bodied person to escort them across the road, even if it means a little longer wait before crossing the road. Therefore, in the view of the Ministry, a pedestrian crossing is not really a satisfactory safety device for unaccompanied young people or old people. Indeed, it may even be a positive incentive to danger and accident.

That brings me to the accident rate. I was surprised at the figures given to me by my hon. and learned Friend. They must also include, I think, accidents not involving pedestrians, because my figures show that in the last two years only one child has been involved in an accident on the 400-yards length of road in which lies the proposed site of the pedestrian crossing; and that was substantially below the figure given by my hon. and learned Friend. This one accident involved a boy aged nine who ran into the road and was slightly injured. During this period, no other pedestrians have been involved in personal accidents.

It is, of course, regrettable that any accidents at all should occur on our roads, especially when they involve young people, but the record does not indicate that conditions are particularly dangerous for pedestrians here. Nor can accidents of this kind, when children suddenly run on to the road, be prevented by providing pedestrian crossings, whether they are controlled or uncontrolled.

The record in no way suggests dangerous conditions for pedestrians. I should not, however, like the House or my hon. and learned Friend to think that we follow a policy of waiting for accidents to happen before we do anything. That is not our policy. Our policy is to look at the condition of the road, the flow of traffic and the number of pedestrians and see whether we think, in the light of these factors, that a pedestrian crossing is necessary. When we have made that assessment, we look at the accident figures to check whether our original decision was right. Usually, as in the case of Rayleigh Road, we find that the accident figure confirms our preliminary view.

My hon. and learned Friend also referred to the speed of the traffic going through the road. I have had inquiries made but, again, they do not bear out exactly what my hon. and learned Friend has said. I understand from the police, who operate a frequent patrol in Rayleigh Road, that they consider that the 30 m.p.h. speed limit is disregarded only in the late evenings. Since 1st January this year, their efforts to enforce the limit here have included reporting 52 offenders for prosecution and warning 160 others. From these figures, therefore, it looks as though the police are maintaining not too bad a patrol.

To sum up, I assure my hon. and learned Friend that we have considered this proposal carefully but that taking into account the number of vehicles passing, the number of pedestrians wanting to cross and the width of the road—20 feet, which is not far to walk—I cannot agree that conditions are such as to justify a pedestrian crossing at the present time.

In one of his letters to me, however, my hon. and learned Friend said—he hinted at the same thing tonight—that he was satisfied from his personal knowledge that there was a cogent case for a crossing here. I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will understand and sympathise with me when I tell him that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport is always under pressure from Members of Parliament and local organisations such as the one my hon. and learned Friend represents to provide pedestrian facilities because they feel, just as my hon. and learned Friend feels, from their knowledge of the locality that there is a cogent case for a crossing in their district.

My right hon. Friend cannot take this local view; he has to take a wider view. This is not another instance, as I am afraid people in the locality sometimes fear, of "the gentleman in Whitehall knows best." If it were purely a local matter it would be right and proper to leave it to local decision, but it is not a local matter. Drivers all over the country are affected. A decision taken by my right hon. Friend has to be taken in the light of criteria that are generally applied throughout the whole country and are not peculiar to each particular area. The problem is a national one and it must therefore be considered on a national basis. I am sure that my hon. and learned Friend would find it very difficult in the conduct of his profession if each court in each district applied a different law. In a small country such as ours there must be a certain amount of uniformity.

The assumption seems to be that we refuse permission to erect a zebra crossing because we are too little concerned with the safety of pedestrians. I cannot emphasise too strongly that this is utterly wrong. Pedestrian crossings were first introduced in 1935. They spread rapidly and everyone thought they were a panacea for all pedestrian troubles, but by the late 1940s there were so many of them that drivers scarcely paid attention to them.

Their very success had led to their undoing. So in 1951 the number was cut deliberately by two-thirds and as a result of this cut observance has since been good. This shows that too many crossings actually endanger safety, and it is a fact that makes my right hon. Friend examine most carefully all sites proposed for zebra crossings to make sure that they are provided only where they are rally justified, otherwise the currency becomes devalued. In places where pedestrian crossings are not the right solution but where some assistance might be needed, we have carried out an experiment such as central refuges. Unfortunately, this cannot be done in Rayleigh Road because it is too narrow. It is only lust over 20 ft. and a refuge if it is to give proper protection for people waiting on the island, must be at least 4 ft. wide. This would leave only 8 ft. on either side, which is much too narrow to permit vehicles to pass safety. There would always be the risk of traffic colliding with the island or of people being hit by a passing vehicle. So a refuge would create danger rather than safety.

Another way of helping pedestrians is seen in the experiment, started in London, of pedestrian control. It is designed to secure greater road safety by some combined regulation of the motorist and the pedestrian. It can be regarded as a bargain it which the pedestrian gives up the right to cross the road when and where he pleases at his own risk, for the right to cross in safety at specified places at specified times. Traffic control signals, incorporating pedestrian operated facilities, have been installed so that there is a safe crossing within 50 yards or so of where anyone wants to cross. In some areas where the zebra crossing hi not the right answer, some form of light controlled crossing such as the "Panda" may be what is needed.

I have mentioned these various methods not because I think they are necessarily suitable to Rayleigh Road, but to show that we are experimenting actively to find an answer which will he helpful to all road users. I am afraid I must sly to my hon. and learned Friend that even in the light of his very persuasive remarks, Rayleigh Road fails to pass the test. This does not mean that if conditions get worse in future, a crossing might not eventually be justified.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Thursday evening. and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty minutes to One o'clock.